Like pretty much every super hero movie, the Avengers begins with a bad guy trying to take over the universe. A dream team of superheroes battles back against great odds in a desperate effort to save the day.
That is not surprising. But here is the amazing thing. The Avengers has grossed more than two billion dollars. Two billion dollars. And that is just one movie. Americans spend an astonishing amount of time and money on superheroes.
So what accounts for the incredible appeal of superheroes today? As a somewhat embarrassed superhero fan, I think I know. A lot of us secretly fantasize about being a superhero.
This goes beyond a weird fascination with superheroes. In America today, we admire power, wealth, success, status, glory. You can see it everywhere. This week, I think especially about the election, with its winners and losers. In America, we want to be winners, or at the very least to be associated with winners. Watching superheroes come from behind to defeat the bad guys is just an example of this larger cultural obsession with victory in the game of life.
Now, our cultural obsession with power and status is not unique. Unfortunately for them, first century-Israelites didn’t have superheroes. But as we see in our Gospel reading, people then were just as obsessed with status as we are.
And it was certainly not limited to the secular world. Jesus tells us many scribes liked to walk around in their fancy robes, and sit in the best seats in their houses of worship, and lead other people in long prayers.
They sound a lot like Episcopal priests! But my point is more general. Like us, the people of first-century Israel admired success. Those scribes may have been unusually hypocritical. But the scribes were not at all unusual in wanting for people to recognize their status, to acknowledge that they were victors in the game of life. They wanted that, and many of us want it, too.
The other people in our reading who are visibly victors in the game of life are the rich people making large contributions to the temple treasury. Jesus doesn’t criticize them as hypocritical in the way he criticizes the scribes. But Jesus doesn’t celebrate them either. Jesus just watches them go by.
What excites Jesus, what Jesus calls his disciples over to see, is a poor widow offering her two small copper coins, her “mite.”
In this little story, Jesus is making a big point. We naturally desire success, status, riches, the ability to make a difference, and we admire the people who have those things. That is the way of the world. It was in the first century, and it is in the twenty-first century.
But that is not Jesus’ way.
Instead, Jesus focuses his attention on the poor, the lowly, the weak, the vulnerable. Two weeks ago, it was blind Bartimaeus. Last week, it was a pair of sisters mourning their dead brother. This week it is a poor widow. Almost always, it is some poor soul in need.
As he so often does, here Jesus exactly reverses the value system of the world. Jesus lifts up the lowly, and he humbles the mighty. My guess is, Jesus laughed a lot. Jesus must have been tons of fun to be with. Certainly Jesus brought deep joy to every person he encountered. But, I say with sadness, it is hard to imagine Jesus cheering for a bunch of superheroes, or getting very worked up about a World Series triumph, or celebrating at an election victory party. Jesus is more likely to have been hanging out with the losers.
One of the great theologians of the Christian tradition drew a sharp distinction between what he called the theology of glory and the theology of the cross. The theology of glory is the religious version of what I am talking about as the value system of the world. It is the desire to win God’s approval by our great deeds.
When Jesus praises the poor widow rather than scribes or rich people, he is rejecting the theology of glory. We need to hear this. We need to hear it over and over again because it is so different from our natural inclinations or the messages of our culture. Our desire for glory can prevent us from truly experiencing God’s grace and love, and so prevent us from knowing the true joy and abundant life that only can God provide.
The alternative to a theology of glory is the theology of the cross. A theology of the cross begins by recognizing that our worldly status does not impress God, that we cannot earn our way into God’s good graces, that long robes and good seats and big contributions do not matter in the end. A theology of the cross begins not in strength, but in weakness and need.
In our reading, the poor widow has little to offer. And, ironically, that is precisely what opens her up to God’s grace. Jesus praises her because she comes to the temple without the illusion of her own greatness. She comes to the temple as a humble child of God grateful for what she has received. And because she is humble, because she knows her own weakness, she is open to God.
So what does this mean for how we live? I have been reading a fifth-century monastic named Cassian who gives a startling answer. Cassian tells stories about monks beset by temptation: lust or anger or legalism or gluttony or whatever. These monks prayed that God would help them resist their temptation. But they didn’t ask God to take the temptation away. They actually thanked God for their temptations!
It took me a long time to make sense of this. Finally I realized that these monks found value in their struggles. Their struggles were a constant reminder that they needed God’s help. And as long as they knew that, they would be OK.
For these monks, the real danger were the times of peace when they might forget their utter dependence on God, when they might begin to trust their own strength, when they might begin to think they deserved long robes and places of honor because, after all, they were super-monks.
For these monks, the real danger was glory, and the great hope was knowing their dependence on God for everything.
That is a theology of the cross. These monks wanted to remember always that they were in the position of the poor widow in our Gospel reading. They wanted to remember their weakness and their need, which helped them to be both more open to God and more charitable to their neighbors.
The lesson for us in this is comforting and radically counter-cultural. We are weak, and that is OK. We struggle, and that is OK. We often fail, and that is OK. Our weaknesses and our struggles and our failures point us to the cross.
As Christians, we are not called to great success. We are called to great dependence. And it is in our dependence that we find true life and joy with God.
May we always know our own need, and be open to God’s grace and love. In Jesus’ name. Amen.